Sonnet 31 is featured in Astrophil and Stella, a sonnet sequence that has 108 sonnets and 11 songs. Astrophil and Stella was probably written in the 1580s and it narrates the story of Astrophil and his hopeless passion for Stella. Particularly, Sonnet 31 conveys Astrophil’s thoughts while seeing the moon at night.
The poem is a Petrarchan sonnet. It has 14 lines and it is written in iambic pentameter. Sonnet 31 can be divided in an octet and a sestet and it has an ABBA ABBA CDCDEE rhyme scheme. Moreover, the poem has love and nature as main themes. The tone is reflective and it gets aggrieved as the lines go by.
Sonnet 31 Analysis
With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies!
How silently, and with how wan a face!
What, may it be that even in heav’nly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries!
Sure, if that long-with love-acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feel’st a lover’s case,
I read it in thy looks; thy languish’d grace
To me, that feel the like, thy state descries.
The octet depicts the lyrical voice’s perception of the moon. The poem starts by describing how the moon rises in the sky at night. The lyrical voice personifies the moon (“O Moon, thou climb’st the skies!) and projects his/ own sorrows in the moon (“With how sad steps”). The lyrical voice describes the moon carefully, as an individual being: “How silently, and with how wan face!”. There is a repetition of the word “how” in order to emphasize the lyrical voice’s attention to the object that he is describing. The lyrical voice questions about the moon’s sadness, and figures that it must be because of “What, may it be that even in heav’nly place /That busy archer his sharp arrows tries” (cupid). The lyrical voice’s connection of his feelings to those of the moon is an example of a “pathetic fallacy”, where elements of nature appear to have human emotions.
The lyrical voice suggests that the moon is struggling with sentimental problems, as he can see them from experiencing them himself: Sure, if that long-with love-acquainted eyes /Can judge of love, thou feel’st a lover’s case”. This furthers the personification and the “phatetic fallacy” mentioned before. The lyrical voice can “read it in thy looks” and the moon appears to be, again, weak (“thy languish’d grace”). This portrait of the moon shows the lyrical voice’s assurance about the moon being lovesick. Once again, the lyrical voice compares the moon’s state to his, making a direct relationship between the moon’s suffering and his (“To me, that feel the like, thy state descries”). Notice how the unusual syntax accentuates the words of suffering that the lyrical voice is expressing.
Then, ev’n of fellowship, O Moon, tell me,
Is constant love deem’d there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be lov’d, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call virtue there ungratefulness?
The sestet presents a series of questions that are crucial to the lyrical voice. The focus of the poem shifts from the description of the moon to the lyrical voice’s reflections about love. This is the typical volta, turn, that occurs in the Petrarchan sonnet. The lyrical voice asks the moon (“Then, ev’n of fellowship, O Moon, tell me”) whether, in the sky, love is treated as “want of wit”. Moreover, he asks if women are as proud as they are on earth (“Are beauties there as proud as here they be?”). These series of questions project problems that the lyrical voice is dealing with.
The lyrical voice still has more questions. He wants to know whether the things above like to be loved. Notice the internal rhyme in the fourth line. Moreover, he wants to know if the beloved ones like the ones who are in loved with them (“Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess? “). Again, the lyrical voice is questioning and thinking about his own sentimental struggles and his relationship with Stella. The final line continues with the questions and the complaints that the lyrical voice has expressed in the sestet. The lyrical voice asks whether “above” love is despised to (“Do they call virtue there ungratefulness?”). He feels that love is a virtue, but it sounds as his beloved one, Stella, doesn’t feel the same way about the lyrical voice’s display of virtue and constant love. The tone of the sestet shows that the lyrical voice is deeply wounded and the rhetorical questions accentuate this pain.
About Philip Sidney
Sir Philip Sidney was born in 1554 and died in 1586. He was an English poet, scholar, soldier, and courtier. Sir Philip Sidney is remembered as one of the main literary figures of the Elizabethan age. His most notable works include: Astrophel and Stella, The Defence of Poesy (also known as The Defence of Poetry or An Apology for Poetry), and The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia.